One would think that a drummer of high enough caliber to play with Pat Metheny, Dave Samuels, Steve Swallow, Jaco Pastorius, Abe Laboriel, and Gary Burton would be in the middle of an exciting playing career. One would also think that this same drummer would be crazy if all he really wanted to do was be a teacher. Gary Chaffee is such a drummer. Although he is an outstanding performer, Gary’s main interest lies in teaching. As one of Boston’s most in-demand educators, his credits include students such as Steve Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, Casey Scheuerell, and Kenwood Dennard.
When Gary and I sat down to talk about teaching, I found him to be warm, reserved, and modest. His musical knowledge is far reaching, and his dedication to education is such that, if more teachers were of his mold, the world would be over-run with dedicated and inspired musicians. His goals have been the same throughout his musical life: to acquire as much knowledge as possible and give it back to those who wish to learn.
TS: Tell me about your musical background?
GC: My first teacher got me started with an introduction to percussion. I went to Potsdam in 1962, and the percussion teacher there was Sandy Feldstein, who is now head of publishing for Alfred Music. My intention was to become a good all-around percussionist. I never really intended to be a set player. To be a college percussion teacher was my main thing.
I did my graduate work at DePaul in Chicago. I went there because I wanted to learn something about studio playing, and Bob Tillis, who was on staff at ABC, was teaching there. After graduating in 1968, I taught for four years at Western Illinois University. One summer, I was at a band show in Chicago, and happened to run into Gary Burton. We talked for a while, and he offered me a teaching gig at Berklee College in Boston. I went for one semester, but left because of problems I was having at the school. The next summer, I saw Gary again, and he said they wanted me to come back. The first time I was there, the percussion department wasn’t all that developed. I tried to get some things happening, but I made a lot of waves. There was no real percussion department to speak of. There were no mallet ensembles and no training-level drumset classes. All the teachers taught on practice pads. I had come from a school with an organized program. When I got to Berklee, there were like 300 students and 15 teachers. I mean, here I was coming to the jazz school, and everybody was teaching and practicing on Fips practice pads. I couldn’t believe it! It made it extremely difficult to teach anything about style, sound, touch, or tone. Eventually, things did change, and I got to redo a lot of the programs and introduce some new ones. After about four years, I got really burnt out, so I had to leave. I had been teaching at the college level for nine years, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore.
TS: What did you want to do?
GC: Probably play more. One thing I will say about that period is that it was a positive one in the sense that a lot of talented people came out and have done very well: John Robinson, Steve Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, Casey Scheurell, and Kenwood Dennard.
TS: What led you to private teaching?
GC: It’s always been what I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to do it in a school. It’s a lot nicer now. My books have been starting to sell more, too. A lot of my students come to me because of what they’ve gathered from the books. I have four. The first is called The Independent Drummer and I have three books called Patterns.
TS: Do you get new input from the ways in which students interpret your work?
GC: All the time. It never ceases to amaze me. They’ll come up with things I never dreamed of. Most of my students are over 20, but in the last four years, I’ve had a couple of high school students. I find that the younger students work so much harder and faster than the older students. These younger musicians have little extra to do, so they come home from school, go down to the drumset, and kill it for a few hours every day. I wish I had more students like that.
TS: How does it make you feel, being here in Boston, to have one or more of your students go on to be big names?
GC: Well, I’m 40 now, and I really think that all the major choices I’ve made along the way have turned me in this direction. Performing is just not the life-style I care to get involved with. I’m a small-town guy. I never had intentions of doing that sort of thing in the first place. I just wanted to be a good teacher, who also played. Some people say that, if you can’t play, teach, which is a lot of bull. Teaching and playing are not the things we’re talking about here; learning is the thing.
In some interviews with well-known musicians, they’ll say they never studied. But it’s not that they never learned anything, because in the next breath they’ll say, “Yeah, but my dad was a musician, so all these guys were coming through the house.” They were learning all the time, in the best way possible, too. Since I grew up in a small town, I was just glad there was someone there who had more knowledge than I had—someone I could learn from. Being a teacher doesn’t make you any less of a player. If you don’t play out a lot, you might be a bit weak on endurance, but that’s nothing. I don’t know any teachers who just teach.
TS: What would a first lesson with you be like?
GC: After getting some background information, I’ll listen to them play a little bit of various types of time: jazz time, Latin, funk, 3/4, samba, bossa, rock. I’ll have them do fills, some soloing, and linear things if they’re hip to them. I’ll find out where their reading is at. A lot of people aren’t very strong readers, so I’ll try to find things to get them going. Then, I’ll find out what they’re interested in pursuing. Most students have specific things in mind. I don’t give technical things, because I’m more interested in what they’re playing and expressing. Some students might even have something strange going on with their techniques, but I won’t deal with it right away. Most times, they bring it up themselves, and that’s when it’s best. Of course, if I can foresee a future problem arising from the way they’re presently approaching the drums, I’ll offer a number of solutions, and together we’ll find out what works best. There are drummers out there who play using all the grips and have fantastic technique, so who’s to say? If there was some magical grip, we’d all be using it! There’s still a growing controversy over matched and traditional grip.
TS: Yes, Mel Lewis had some strong ideas on that.
GC: Yeah, I read that interview. I was really kind of disappointed. We all know that the traditional grip developed long before there was jazz or a drumset. Jazz players adopted the grip, because it happened to be the grip of the times.
TS: It’s really what you’re comfortable with.
GC: Right. I switched from traditional to matched about 15 years ago, and it’s never really bothered me. I think it’s all in what you’re used to and how much time you have to learn another way, if you wish to do so.
TS: Do you find it frustrating, with the popularity of rock, to have a lot of students but not be able to teach them what you feel you’re strongest at?
GC: Not really. There’s a lot that I can do in areas they don’t know about. I don’t knock that style of music at all. It’s taste, choice, and what you prefer to get into. It’s great for me, because they’ll usually have more information on different idioms than I do, so I get to learn, too. I’ll have more concepts about what you could do with it later on, so when you put those ideas together, some interesting ideas will arise.
Pop music needs more people playing more interesting things. I think they’re backing themselves into an electronic corner. They’ve been playing these flat beats for so long that, now machines can play it better. The more things we can do to diversify the time a bit, the better it will be. It won’t be any less danceable, just more interesting.
TS: Terry Bozzio seems to bring a new concept to playing in that vein.
GC: Absolutely. A lot of students come to me for that sort of thing: the polyrhythm stuff. A lot of others are under the impression of, “Okay, if you’re going to play with Zappa, then learn it, but otherwise you don’t really need it.” But you learn to play free over the bar line. I mean, if we spend all this time learning how to play 8th notes, 16th notes, and triplet rhythms, then why should we approach the other stuff any differently? Anyone would be a fool to think that you would use that stuff as much as the common things. But, on the other hand, it’s like something special, and you don’t use something special all the time, do you? You use it when it’s right for the music and when you want a specific thing to happen. It does take a good amount of time and work to get that stuff together. It’s really worth it though, and players find there’s more they can apply it to than they think.
TS: What teaching aids do you use?
GC: I have two sets where I teach. I also have a Dr. Beat, an amp, and a tape deck all hooked up to a junction box, so we can both play to a record or click track and record it. I feel that it’s good to create actual playing situations as well as doing book work in a lesson. I don’t really teach rudiments. I have my own system of sticking. Most of the students who come to me already know the rudiments. My teaching system is different. I figure that I spend 90% of my time concentrating on time playing. I think that’s where the focus needs to be. My goal is to teach drummers how to play time feels, not beats or patterns, and how to improvise within those time feels.
Some students have to deal with the frustration that conies with progress. When you’re younger, things kind of go along fairly consistently. You absorb the information and concepts at basically the same time. As you get older, the issues get subtler, and you’ll be going along and hit a wall that you’ll have trouble getting over. You seem to bounce up against this wall time and time again, but somehow, usually through plain effort, you break through. And when you do, a whole new plateau opens up, and it brings you up to a new level. This seems to happen to everybody. Students shouldn’t get nervous about it. There’s no set answer to that sort of thing. You just try to go with it, but if it’s really hanging you up, then you switch gears, try something else for a while, and come back to it. I try to get as much information out as I can. I don’t get too concerned if students don’t understand it all at first. I just want them to know about it and be aware. They’ve got the rest of their lives to figure out what it means and what to do with it.
TS: Do you believe that a student either has it or doesn’t have it?
GC: I believe everyone has talent. I know a lot of people who’ve worked real hard and have become good players. Drums may not be the perfect thing for you, but if you want it badly enough, you’ll work at it. Also, what is this mythical standard we’re talking about? I mean, we both know there are drummers out there making a million bucks, who by most standards, aren’t that strong, and we both know incredible players who aren’t making a dime. Who’s to say what this magical level is?
TS: Do you ever do group drum lessons?
GC: I really like group lessons. I did them a lot when I was at Berklee. I would have three or four drumsets to work with at a time. One day we’d do Latin stuff. Another day we’d work on soloing. It was hip because everyone got to do a lot of playing, and there were all these ideas coming from three or four different sources at the same time. The students, upon hearing their peers working on the same ideas, would become more aggressive and more willing to take certain risks.
A lot of students will say they’re nervous sitting opposite a teacher who knows the material a lot better. It’s a bit intimidating. I try to convince them that they should never feel that way. I try to get them to relax and be themselves. To some, however, playing with their peers is really okay. Invariably, there will be people at different levels, and as the teacher, I have to know who is where so as not to bury any one drummer with the strengths of another. Say you are working on soloing and phrasing ideas. There will be certain phrases that everyone will be familiar with, because they were part of a previous assignment. You’ll get four or five different perspectives on the same idea. They will be endless, because no two will be the same. It’s a much richer dose and it works out well, even if the students are at different levels.
TS: I sometimes think that, with the popularity of video and media hype, a fantasy image has been created about being a musician that has turned kids on to music because of money and the idea of becoming a star. Do you think this affects the quality and seriousness of the new drummers?
GC: Not really. I think the drummers who would be turned on by all that are the ones who would normally go in that direction. The ones who can see the shallowness of all the hype won’t be affected. They realize it exists but can get around it. What you say is definitely true, though. Some drummers are really turned on by the “show-biz” stuff, where everything else is as important as the music, or more so. Some really like it and desire to become stars. Most musicians realize that the show-biz-type gigs are usually the big money makers, and almost everyone hopes for the ideal gig where you can be creative and still make money. That kind of gig is pretty rare. I’m sure a person like Steve Smith is very happy doing his own music in Vital Information, where he can get into his jazz and funk roots more, and still be able to make the money he did with Journey.
TS: With the popularity of pop music, is it more difficult now to teach other styles?
GC: Most drummers who have an interest in other styles will express it. I don’t push it on those who don’t. I’ve had drummers come in here who were definitely rockers. Who am I to tell them that it can’t be that way? I mean, I’ll mention it and expose them to it, but they’re adults. They can make their own choices about what they want to play.
TS: What’s your opinion of correspondence teaching?
GC: I’ve done a little bit, but it’s tough to get your material organized enough to be able to do that well. Some teachers have big systems worked out and charge big bucks. The ones that I’ve done have taken a long time to prepare. I think that, if you don’t have any other choice, it might be the way to go, but personal contact is really the best way. It’s more significant for the student. Lots of times, a small adjustment or a slight subtlety at just the right moment can make all the difference in the world.
TS: What’s the greatest disservice a teacher can do to a student?
GC: To say, “Do it this way, because I do.” Also, not teaching students to think for themselves, take chances, make mistakes, and go for their goals.
TS: On the other side of the coin, what’s the greatest service a teacher can do?
GC: To help the student develop that onward approach to music, and to help create the interest and enthusiasm to explore. I always try to get the students to be themselves, find out what it is they want to do as players, do it, and then live with whatever happens. You’re going to be best as a player when you’re playing the most truthfully. And that’s when you’re playing exactly what you want to play. Granted, you don’t often get into those ideal situations, but that’s the goal of those who are moving forward—to express your ideas and not someone else’s. Everybody’s got something to say. So, as a teacher, what- ever you can do to bring out that individuality in a student is the thing to do.
TS: What sort of material do you cover in your clinics?
GC: Mostly time-functioning material and maybe some soloing. I try to do something they’ll enjoy and be able to use in their own playing. I usually do some sticking and articulation things; also, the linear stuff is very popular.
Right now I have some video projects going with a friend of mine. I’ve had many requests for this sort of thing, so we formed a company and have been working on various presentations. The first video is out on the market. I’m really excited about it, because it allows me to reach more people.
The main interest, however, in my clinics has been polyrhythms. People get very interested when you play something over something else. I believe they like learning something that actually gets them thinking a little bit. The stuff is in my books, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to promote them a bit. But still, the most important issue to me is to get that information out there for drummers to try.
TS: Overall, is experience still the best teacher?
GC: I believe you learn from two sources. You learn basic skills and techniques from a teacher. After that, you learn how to apply those skills through practical experience. You don’t learn how to read from experience. You apply reading skills through experience. I think everyone needs both kinds of learning. When you go out and play with a band, it’s never totally free. There are always some restrictions. You start and stop with everyone else, and hopefully play the same tempo. What I’m saying is that there’s always something to learn about the art and craft of music. I’m glad I like Beethoven. I don’t play it, but I’ve learned something from his music that I didn’t learn from playing “Stella By Starlight.” There are a lot of valuable things out there.